SCMP Wednesday, February 14, 2001

New money man may leave gap in education


The expected appointment of Antony Leung Kam-chung as the new Financial Secretary has generally been welcomed. But any move will raise questions about the education sector, which he would leave behind.
Mr Leung, a banker and Executive Councillor, is chairman of the Education Commission, the Government's leading think-tank in this field. He has had a key influence on policy and is regarded as, in effect, the Government's "Minister for Education". In particular, he was the architect behind the far-reaching education reforms announced last September.
There is broad satisfaction with what Mr Leung achieved and a belief education policy is now moving in the right direction, but his departure would raise doubts about the future.
Some educationists worry that in the absence of Mr Leung's leadership, the Education Commission will become just another toothless advisory body. There are also concerns about whether the education reforms will become reality if he is no longer involved.
Mr Leung, if appointed, would take the place of current Financial Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. Mr Tsang is expected to be promoted to Chief Secretary for Administration when Anson Chan Fang On-sang leaves the post in April. His position on the Executive Council has been a trump card when pushing through the education reforms, which will affect almost every teacher and pupil.
He was able to co-ordinate government departments and gain political support for the plans. Mr Leung also played a key role in determining how the annual $45 billion education budget would be spent.
In the past, most reforms proposed by the commission were adopted as Government policies. But Tik Chi-yuen, chairman of the Committee on Home-School Co-operation and a Board of Education member said it might not be the case in the future.
He said the Government might use the high-level reshuffle to regain the initiative in establishing education policies. Mr Tik said the Government, in many policy areas, watered down the role of the statutory and advisory bodies.
"For example, in housing and health, the Government has recently appointed low-profile people to head the Housing Authority and the Hospital Authority. The Education Commission will probably follow the same trend."
In September last year, Dr Lo Ka-shui, chairman of the Growth Enterprise Market Listing Committee and managing director of property company Great Eagle Holdings, succeeded Peter Woo Kwong-ching as leader of the Hospital Authority, a position he will hold for two years.
In the same month, veteran politician Cheng Hon-kwan was appointed chairman of the Housing Authority. Mr Cheng replaced Executive Councillor Rosanna Wong Yick-ming, who was forced to step down after the piling scandal on housing-development projects. Mr Cheng is expected to fill the position for two years, just long enough to restore confidence. Both appointments raised eyebrows within the respective sectors.
Mr Tik said the education reforms have now taken root, but the Government wants greater control over their implementation. He believes the role of the commission will gradually fade and that Mr Leung's departure will make little difference.
"The education reform is already on track. Its success now depends very much on the Government's implementation," said Mr Tik.
If the education reforms are put into practice, students will only have to sit one public examination - instead of the current three - to secure a place in university. The seven years of study at secondary school will be reduced to six, and split into three junior years and three senior years. Pre-school teachers will also be better trained.
Cheung Man-kwong, legislator for the education constituency and president of the 75,000-strong Professional Teachers' Union, said he hoped any new leader of the commission would understand the difficulties in implementing the reforms.
"It has been a common problem with past chairmen. They did not understand the real picture in the classrooms. We must learn a lesson - plans can easily be put on paper, but they might not be so easy to implement in reality."
He said, for example, previous reforms of the curriculum and Putonghua teaching had encountered great resistance during implementation. The commission would need an "independent and open-minded" chairman with good links to the Chief Executive.
"Education reform is so important. The [commission] chairman must have time to reach out to schools, and I think the position should be made a full-time job."
He said that in order to avoid any conflict of interest, the new chairman should not be anyone from the education sector.
Mr Leung is regarded as a more competent chairman than his predecessors and described as a person willing to listen and to accept different views.
"He has no prejudice against me being the president of a big teachers' union and a member of the Democratic Party. And this is not an easy thing to do," said Mr Cheung. "But it will be premature for me to say if his reforms are a success. It takes time to see their effect."
Mr Leung's sound background in banking and business has given new inspiration to the education sector. He is the Asia-Pacific chairman of investment bank JP Morgan Chase.
Stephen Hui Chin-yim, chairman of Hong Kong Subsidised Secondary Schools Council, appreciates Mr Leung's efforts in setting the direction for the reforms. But he said Mr Leung's business-oriented thinking about education was not fully accepted by schools.
"He assesses schools' effectiveness and output like a business. But education is not a production line. You cannot just look at a student's academic performance and say it is good or bad."
But Nelson Lau Ming-ki, of the Union of Heads of Aided Primary Schools gave credit to Mr Leung for bringing his commercial experience into education.
"For example, schools used to be shy about asking parents to pay extra money for more extra-curriculum activities, such as Putonghua or dance classes. But now, schools have become more business-oriented in a positive way," said Mr Lau. "He has done a better job than some previous chairmen who are academics."
Moses Cheng Mo-chi, chairman of the Board of Education, is a possible candidate to succeed Mr Leung, according to one academic. The academic quoted the example of Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai who was Board of Education chairman before heading the commission in the late 1980s. He dismissed the possibility a senior academic from a local university will be considered, because the commission will tackle higher education in the second phase of its reform and there could be a conflict of interest.
For Mr Leung's successor, reforming higher education and keeping the university heads happy will be a great challenge. Mr Tik said the present reform focused more on primary and secondary schools. Meanwhile, proposals to change the university system - moving from three-year to four-year courses and increasing tuition fees - are the subject of hot debate.
"Mr Leung has successfully [liaised] with the Government for such a big reform and fought for some resources."
In March last year, the Government set aside $800 million in the Budget for the education reforms. This is in addition to the annual education budget. But many worry the reform fund, which will be spent on priority tasks such as early childhood education and elementary education, is far from enough to make the changes a reality.
Mr Leung's successor will face a tough job in answering an important question - who will foot the bill?
Parents and students will also be eager to know if the new chairman will push the user-pays-more principle Mr Leung has been advocating.
"It is open to discussion whether the education expenditure should be solely shouldered by the Government. I think parents and the business sector should contribute more, since the whole community will benefit from better education quality," Mr Leung has said.
Ella Lee ( ) is a staff writer for the Post's Editorial Pages.
Additional reporting by Cynthia Wan and Gary Cheung.